About an hour’s drive north of Seoul, in the Gwangju Mountains, nearly fifty South Korean children pore over a book. The text is an unlikely choice: the Talmud, the fifteen-hundred-year-old book of Jewish laws. The students are not Jewish, nor are their teachers, and they have no interest in converting. Most have never met a Jew before. But, according to the founder of their school, the students enrolled with the goal of receiving a “Jewish education” in addition to a Korean one.
When I toured the boarding school last year, the students, who ranged in age from four to nineteen, were seated cross-legged on the floor of a small tentlike auditorium. Standing in front of a whiteboard, their teacher, Park Hyunjun, was explaining that Jews pray wearing two small black boxes, known as tefillin, to help them remember God’s word. He used the Hebrew words shel rosh (“on the head”) and shel yad (“on the arm”) to describe where the boxes are worn. Inside these boxes, he said, was parchment that contained verses from one of the holiest Jewish prayers, the Shema, which Jews recite daily. As the room filled with murmurings of the Shema in Korean, the dean of the school leaned over to me and said that the students recited the prayer daily, too, “with the goal of memorizing it.”
Park Hyunjun founded the school in 2013, and now runs it with his son, the dean. The two were trained at the Shema Education Institute, which was started by a Korean reverend and brings Christians from South Korea to Los Angeles, so that they can witness firsthand how Jews study, pray, and live. The reverend’s thesis is that the Jews have thrived for so many years because of certain educational and cultural practices, and that such benefits can be unlocked for Christians if those practices are taught to their children. During the drive from Seoul, the dean told me that he was worried about what I would think of his school’s Jewish classes. “I don’t always know exactly what Jewish education is,” he said.
In the classroom, the students paired up for “Talmudic debate.” Their dialectic centered on a paraphrased verse from Deuteronomy: “Money improperly earned may not be donated to church.” The room erupted into impassioned pleas and gesticulations, then two students were chosen to debate in front of the class. Sanguk Bae, seventeen, sat with one palm on the ground and the other hand waving a Bible in the air, arguing that the law was the law, and the Bible was not open to interpretation. Min Kwon, sixteen, countered that God loves everyone and forgives easily. The class concluded with a recitation of a psalm.
Outside, over bulgogi, Park Hyunjun laid out the goals behind his curriculum. “I would like to make our students to be people of God and to have charity just like Jewish people,” he said. Before I left, the dean pulled out a crate of Talmud books in Korean that the school used. There were forty-page books with more cartoons than words and two-hundred-and-fifty-page books that included lesson plans and study questions. He conceded that he wasn’t sure if they had “the same concept of Talmud” as the Jews do. “Our Talmud book,” he said, “is kind of a story about our life.”
Read the rest of the report at the NEW YORKER.